Wednesday, January 30, 2013


One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying. ~Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc, by Jules Bastien-Lepage 

St. Joan of Arc, the brave maiden who followed a call that seemed beyond ridiculous, the soldier who defeated armies, the girl who saved France, announced herself as the patron saint of my WIP sometime last year. I'm turning to her today to keep me inspired through a revision that is beating me up. Often writing seems like a ridiculous call to follow...but it's only my laziness and lack of courage that I have to defeat.

Monday, January 28, 2013


In honor of what I like to call "Newbery Day" (yes, somewhere in the world, the winner of the 2013 Newbery medal already knows he or she has one, even though the rest of us need to wait another hour or so), I wanted to bring up one of my favorite medal winners: The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo, in light of my recent ramble about the juxtaposition of light and dark in art and literature.
The problem is...every time I sat down to write something, it seemed to detract from the masterful way that topic is handled in the book. Ultimately, Despereaux is about light and dark; about the soul's longing for light; about the darkness that we must all struggle through; about a few important ways that we can bring light to others.
But, again, every time I start citing examples, they seem like very poor reflections of the original. Then I was tempted to leave you with about a gajillion quotes from the book. Mark informed me that quoting entire chapters probably broke a few copyright laws. So...all I can leave you with is this one wonderful quote to brighten your day:

“Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell...a story. Make some light.”

Yeah...just go read the book (if you haven't already) and then you can come back and we can all talk about it in the comments. If you're listening to me instead of reading it, you're not spending your time as well as you could.

P.S. I'm currently reading Despereaux to Lucy and Zoe, and it has found it's place on the "best-read-aloud-ever" shelf, in their very critical judging. The only other books on that shelf, if you're interested, are Little House in the Big Woods (by Laura Ingalls Wilder, of course) and The Night Fairy (by Laura Amy Schlitz).

Friday, January 25, 2013

My top 5 Literary Lists... list form, naturally.

We'll start with...

#5, from We Were Tired of Living in a House, by Liesel Moak Skorpen:

"So we packed our bag with sweaters
and scarlet leaves and gold
and a frog who was a particular friend
and precious stones that caught and held the sun
and seashells singing like the surf."

#4 is from Lucy's very favorite picture book, Christina Katerina & the Box, by Patricia Lee Gauch:

"Christina Katerina liked things:
tin cups and old dresses,
worn-out ties and empty boxes.
Any of those things, but mostly boxes.
Hat boxes,
bakery boxes with see-through lids,
shoe boxes.
Best of all she liked big boxes."

#3 hails from The Great Redwall Feast, by Brian Jacques, though to be honest I could have chosen any of his books. Every time he starts listing food, my mouth begins to water:

"'Chop up the chestnuts,
add some more apples,
pass me those damsons, and that meadowcream!'
His high squeaky voice
rises up to the rafters
'mid lovely aromas, and wispy white steam.

"Breads and cheeses,
nuts and salads,
soups and pastries, pies and flans,
tarts and trifles,
cakes and puddings,
ovens, cauldrons, pots and pans.

"Stews and sauces,
jams and junkets,
candied fruits and honey sweets.
Baking, basting,
cooking, cooling,
festive fare and banquet treats."

Now we arrive at #2, from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J. K. Rowling:

"Hagrid wouldn't let Harry buy a solid gold cauldron, either ('It says pewter on yer list'), but they got a nice set of scales for weighing potion ingredients and a collapsible brass telescope. Then they visited the Apothecary, which was fascinating enough to make up for its horrible smell, a mixture of bad eggs and rotted cabbages. Barrels of slimy stuff stood on the floor; jars of herbs, dried roots, and bright powders lined the walls; bundles of feathers, strings of fangs, and snarled claws hung from the ceiling. While Hagrid asked the man behind the counter for a supply of some basic potion ingredients for Harry, Harry himself examined silver unicorn horns at twenty-one Galleons each and miniscule, glittery-black beetle eyes (five Knuts a scoop)."

Lastly, the master of list-making comes in at #1: T. H. White, with this [long but brilliant] selection from The Once and Future King:

"There was a real corkindrill hanging from the rafters, very lifelike and horrible with glass eyes and scaly tail stretched out behind it. When its master came into the room it winked one eye in salutation, although it was stuffed. There were thousands of brown books in leather bindings, some chained to the bookshelves and others propped against each other as if they had had too much to drink and did not really trust themselves. These gave out a smell of must and solid brownness which was most secure. Then there were stuffed birds, poppinjays, and maggot-pies and kingfishers, and peacocks with all their feathers but two, and tiny birds like beetles, and a reputed pheonix which smelt of incense and cinnamon. It could not have been a real pheonix, because there is only one of those at a time. Over by the mantelpiece there was a fox's mask, with GRAFTON, BUCKINGHAM TO DAVENTRY, 2 HRS 20 MINS written under it, and also a forty-pound salmon with AWE, 43 MIN., BULLDOG written under it, and a very life-like basilisk with CROWHURST OTTER HOUNDS in Roman print. There were several boars' tusks and the claws of tigers and libbards mounted in symmetrical patterns, and a big head of Ovis Poli, six live grass snakes in a kind of aquarium, some nests of the solitary wasp nicely set up in a glass cylinder, an ordinary beehive whose inhabitants went in and out of the window unmolested, two young hedgehogs in cotton wool, a pair of badgers which immediately began to cry Yik-Yik-Yik-Yik in loud voices as soon as the magician appeared, twenty boxes which contained stick caterpillars and sixths of the puss-moth, and even an oleander that was worth sixpence--all feeding on the appropriate leaves--a guncase with all sorts of weapons which would not be invented for half a thousand years, a rod-box ditto, a chest of drawers full of salmon flies which had been tied by Merlyn himself, and another chest whose drawers were labelled Mandragora, Mandrake, Old Man's Beard, etc., a bunch of turkey feathers and goose-quills for making pens, an astrolabe, twelve pairs of boots, a dozen purse-nets, three dozen rabbit wires, twelve corkscrews, some ants' nests between two glass plates, ink bottles of every possible color from red to violet, darning needles, a gold medal for being the best scholar at Winchester, four or five recorders, a nest of field mice all alive-o, two skulls, plenty of cut glass, Ventian glass, Bristol glass and a bottle of Mastic varnish, some satsuma china and some cloisonne, the fourteenth edition of the Encylopaedia Brittanica (marred as it was by the sensationalism of the popular plates), two paint-boxes, three globes of the known geographical world, a few fossils, the stuffed head of a cameleopard, six pismires, some glass retorts with cauldrons, bunsen burners, etc., and a complete set of cigarette cards depicting wild fowl by Peter Scott."

Besides the fact that I just love making lists, I bring this up because lists are something that can make or break a book for me. If you can make your lists interesting (funny, beautiful, insightful, etc.) I will love them. If they are dull I will skip over them. If I have to skip over too many...I'll stop reading.

So how do you feel about lists? Any favorites you'd add?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Les Miz, darkness, and light

(Warning: The post is full of spoilers. You may want to avoid it if you don’t know the story already!)

Every so often you come across a work of art that reminds me of just why art is so necessary. Generally your initial reaction is to simply get lost in the creation--whether it be a wonderful painting, an excellent book, or a grand musical composition. Once you find yourself again, however, you feel as if your soul has been transported. Your eyes have been opened, and you see more clearly. You own the truth that you may have already known...because it was presented in a way so fundamental to who you are as a person that it becomes a part of you.

Most recently, I had this experience in a movie theater, when Mark and I saw the long-anticipated film adaptation of Les Miserables. I confess that I saw it two weeks ago, but I’ve only just gotten over the stage where all I can say is, “Wow.” Luckily for you, my thoughts are a little more coherent at this point!

As in any story or work of art, the first thing you notice about Les Miz is the tone. It’s dark. Very dark. You hear it in the music, you see it in the blacks and greys, the mud and the bruises of the opening scene. You feel it in the moral depravity of the main character: Jean Valjean, a newly released convict who has been blinded by hate, who resents the world for the injustice it has shown him. 

But then: light. Jean Valjean, lost and unwanted everywhere he goes, is shown generosity and mercy by a kindly, gentle bishop. This one moment of pure goodness has the power to change Valjean’s entire perspective on life. The bishop exhorts him to be a become a better man--and he is so moved that almost against his will he obeys.

Of course the darkness returns. Valjean has chosen holiness, and you see his struggle to be saintly in every choice he makes. But that doesn’t make his life any easier. The world is full of evil, and the movie portrayed it just as it is: terrible and ugly and dark.

It’s not easy to watch. You cringe at the living conditions of the French people. You retch at the sight of the prostitutes, who despite trying to make the best of a terrible situation have all but lost their humanity. There is nothing beautiful or alluring about them, and they know it: they are selling themselves as bodies without souls--and some brilliant costume and makeup artists decided to make them look just like that: if you’ve ever seen an image of a zombie, that is the first thing that will come to your mind when you see the “Lovely Ladies.” 

Yet even these most depraved of characters let rays of light shine through. They see the desperate Fantine, who joins their ranks of the walking dead in order to earn money to save her daughter, and they offer her consolation. They’re wrong in what they offer--but they really are trying to help her. That moment was one of the most touching of the entire film. It’s one thing to be kind when you are a bishop, whose life would be comfortable but for his own radical generosity. It’s even understandable to be kind when, like Valjean, you have been shown goodness and mercy yourself, when your life has been changed for the better. But these ladies had nothing. Their lives were ruined and the only logical emotion for them to feel would be hate. Yet...they show superhuman pity and love. Gives you shivers.

These stark contrasts of light and dark continue throughout the film, and make it the work of art it is. As difficult as it was to watch the moments of depravity, they were necessary. Pope John Paul II made an important point in his must-read Letter to Artists: "Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling.aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption." If it was hard for me to watch, I can only imagine how hard it was for the actors to portray, for the director to conceive. They had to plumb those blackest depths with their imaginations--and every writer knows how painful and grueling that is...but without showing us the darkness, we would be unable to see the heroic virtue and Divine grace it requires for a character to move toward light. And they did so with an admirable restraint; by showing the squalor, they portrayed prostitution and objectification of women in its proper light: as something that can only invoke pity and repulsion in the heart of the viewer. I could shout, “Women should be treated with love and respect!” from the housetops every day for the rest of my life and never get at the truth as well as those few scenes did.

Another striking contrast of darkness and light was in the way the characters viewed and spoke to or about God. You don’t usually get to watch movies in which God is a character...though He may have been invisible throughout Lis Miserables, you can’t deny His presence. Almost every character says His name. In the darkness, the loathsome Thenardiers throw the words “God” and “Jesus” about like ping pong balls--they’ve tossed Him aside--and boy, does it show in their misery. But in the light, Jean Valjean invokes His help. The name of God again breaks through the darkness at the moment of Fantine’s death, when she recognizes rightly that Valjean was “sent from God in heaven.” Later, His name is sung out in prayer by the gentle sisters who unknowingly provide Valjean the sanctuary that saves Cosette’s life. 

But by keeping God invisible--leaving us in darkness, as it were--the great artistic point of the story was made. It’s summed up in one of the last lines of the film: “And remember the truth that once was spoken: to love another person is to see the face of God.”

Talk of art conveying truths... Talk of light breaking through darkness... The character who sings that line--sings it from Heaven.

And this is the power you have as writers and artists. Even if you do so in a small way, you have the power to lift your audience's minds to greater things.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Newbery reading

I have this little challenge with myself where I try (er, hope) to have read the Newbery medal winner before the award is announced. In the past five years since I began, I have only managed to do so once, in 2009 when I was pleasantly stunned to hear that The Graveyard Book had won. (Did anyone else think it was rather a departure from the type of books they’d been picking?) Last year marked the only year when I hadn’t read at least two of the honor books (but, well, there only were two honor books).
So I’ve got less than two weeks to improve my record before this year’s awards are announced.
Here are some of the books I think deserve to win something, in reverse order of when I read them:

Twelve Kinds of Ice, by Ellen Bryan Obed
The Humming Room, by Ellen Potter
Katerina’s Wish, by Jeannie Mobley
Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz
The Great Unexpected, by Sharon Creech
May B., by Caroline Starr Rose


I know it's a small list. I’ve read many other well-written books that just didn’t seem to say “Newbery” to me, such as Wonder or Liar and Spy (though I wouldn't actually be surprised if the Newbery committee disagrees with me). And lots of excellent young adult books, but I can’t pretend to have the knowledge to predict the Printz decision. (I will be saddened if Code Name Verity doesn’t win something, though historical fiction doesn’t get spotlighted very often.)

So, two questions for you:
1) What reading should I squeeze in before the 28th?
2) Why can’t we have a prize for young adult historical fiction--or is there one I don’t know about?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Deep Theology: the Kindergarten Version

(While preparing some toast for Papa, who was in bed with a fever.)

Lucy: Zoe, do you want to know what made Papa sick?
Zoe: You KNOW?
Lucy: Yep. Papa got sick because Adam and Eve ate the bad apple.
Zoe: Really?
Lucy: Yes. That’s why EVERYONE gets sick. Nobody got sick before that. It’s all their fault.
Zoe: Wow. Lucy, you know EVERYTHING.

Of course, the three-year-old version we heard the next day may have been even better:

(During a phone conversation with Grandpa--I could only hear one side, of course.)

Zoe: Yep. Papa is sick. Wanna know WHY he is sick? Because Addle and, um ...Mabel and ...Um, Mama, what was their names? Oh, right. Adam and Eve ate an apple. And it was POISONED. They was super-duper-alley-ooper hungry and that’s why they ate the apple even though it was POISONED. And it made Papa sick. Lucy told me this because she is SO SMART.

I could refer you to any number of theologians for a more accurate description of the concept of original sin, but at the moment I am too busy cradling a box of tissues to my chest and moaning, “Why, oh, why, Adam and Eve, did you have to go eat the darn poisoned apple? This is ALL YOUR FAULT!”

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

When inspiration smacks you upside the head

Yesterday Mark and I got a wonderful idea for a book that we will someday write together. (Someday being when we both finish revising the stories we’re working on now.) We chatted into the wee hours of the morning, planning and plotting and daydreaming (except it was, well, nightdreaming). But did you ever think about all the bizarre elements and “chance” occurrences that go into the making of an idea?
Here’s the recipe for ours:
1 gallon reminiscing about how we fell in love
2 cups Downton Abbey
3 tablespoons of Doctor Who
Some peppermint tea with lots of honey
Simmer all together with a dose of nighttime cough and cold medicine until idea suddenly springs forth, fully formed and ready to control your thoughts for the next several weeks.
That should be a fun one to explain when someone asks, “So, where do you get your ideas?”
Ah, no...we don’t get our ideas. They get us.

Monday, January 7, 2013

MMGM: Twelve Kinds of Ice, by Ellen Bryan Obed

While browsing through my library shelves last week, I came across a beautiful little book...not quite picture book, not quite chapter book, but altogether wonderful: Twelve Kinds of Ice, written by Ellen Bryan Obed and illustrated by Barbara McClintock.
Through a series of twenty vignettes, the author takes you through the various kinds of ice found throughout the year and the excitement that accompanies each--I should say the author and illustrator, truthfully, because Barbara McClintock's pen and ink drawings take the book from "Wow, this is amazing," to "Is it weird if I just hug this book now?" (Is it weird? Don't judge me until you've read it...)
I think I need to provide a semblance of logic at this point, so I shall give you a list of my favorite things:
1) Every word is perfect. The text is an ideal example of what prose can be when approached by a poet--it's not poetry, mind you: it's perfect prose. Every line is beautiful, but every paragraph is also beautiful. There are no extraneous words to take away from the emotion and story that the author is creating.
2) Every line of illustration is perfect. I couldn't imagine a more fitting match between words and pictures.
3) The story itself is a tribute to the kind of life that I am trying to create for my family, and that in itself is rather against-the-grain and pretty incredible. It's a story of a family that knows how to have fun with the very simple things that life gives them. It's about togetherness and joy and--it bears repeating--fun. And it makes me want to go turn my garden into an ice rink.
I know I gush about books a lot and there are thousands I love...but this one goes on the list of "Can't recommend it any more highly." Please do yourself a favor and read it as soon as you can.

To find more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, visit the blog of Shannon Messenger, the genius behind it all...

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Just when I start to think I'd like to time travel...

...something happens that reminds me how much I love modern technology.
It sounded so romantic when Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about waking up to frost on the windows, breath hanging suspended in the air and so on.... but when it happens to you, all you can really think about is: "I am freezing freezing freezing," or, "Just get socks on the baby--who cares if they match? My fingers are fumbling too much to sort through this basket--and she needs two or three pairs on anyway!"
Our outdoor wood-burning furnace died today... And boy, are three-centuries old houses drafty. We could actually see our breath floating out in front of us, wispy clouds of...oh, forget it. It just isn't poetic in real life.
Besides, despite getting some oil heat going, my fingers are still fumbling a bit too much to type anything that sounds pretty.
Still, a new appreciation has been awakened in me for the women who lived in my home for the centuries before I was born. It's fun to think about....the colonial housewife cuddling her baby by the fireplace...the stylish young ladies of the mid 1800's, somehow stuffing their hoop skirts through that narrow doorway...the dismay that some wife of last century must have felt when it was decided that this whole electricity thing was inevitable. Apparently there was a neighbor several years back who remembered stories her mother told of fancy dinners and dances held here in the 1920's, with a gas-lit chandelier hanging over the dining room--can't you just imagine the swishy dresses and the sparkling jewels and the music blaring over the phonograph?
There I go, getting romantic again. Let me just take a deep breath of this frigid air and thank God that I was born in the twentieth century.

But we can't help pretending sometimes! :)
Lucy got very good at carding wool this summer,
but Zoe definitely beat her at looking like a proper 18th century miss.